Sunday, 31 March 2013

Pascha: A very different Easter

First up; an apology. Its hard to imagine how this could be further off topic for this blog but if I don't let myself wander down tangents I get very stale, very quickly. Anyway, to business:

Part decorated bier
Easter Sunday, as any English readers may be surprised to discover, has retained its meaning in some parts of the world. There are places where the eggs aren't made of chocolate and entire towns come together for worship, ritual and celebration. One such place is Crete. The rituals and traditions start in earnest on the second Saturday before Easter Sunday and then everything builds and builds with particular services, outfits, diets and tasks on particular days. Whole villages flood out into the fields to gather wild flowers for the church and the bier. Eggs are died red and baked into special plaited breads. It is a whole week of fasting, repentance and re-enactment building up to midnight between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.

Eggs in Greek brioche with the view from the kitchen

Taking Christ down from the cross
Now re-enactment is where I come in. On Holy Thursday there is a re-enactment of the aftermath of the crucifixion. In the village we went to there was a parade and a brass band as Christ was taken down from his cross in front of the church. What I (as a non-believing Englishman) had far more affinity with was a local counterpoint to this which is apparently a specifically Cretan tradition. Every family gathers old rags and clothes, makes an effigy of Judas and burns him. We do the same here every November in a purely secular fashion when we burn - depending on who you believe - either Guy Fawkes or the King on a bonfire so all of the tour seemed to settle into the spirit of this ritual far more easily than some elements of the week.

The photograph of the burning effigy below is the one I wanted to show you. I love the spaghetti-western feel to it - it needs a Morricone soundtrack and you just know Eli Wallach is in hiding behind the firewood. The extended family of the owner of the tour company occupy an entire hamlet which we visited for this. Every household was related to every other household - there were interconnecting doors between every building as a remant from when it had been bandit and vendetta country so someone being chased always had a choice of escape routes. This is their chapel, and Judas' head - a football - has just fallen off.

The real heights though are yet to come.

Late on Saturday night a service begins. Everyone attends, entire towns are at their church. There were more people there than I could believe lived in that one town. I didn't sit in on the service for several reasons - it would have been intrusive of me, there wasn't room and I'd been tipped off that it was better to be outside. The service doesn't finish until something special arrives - a flame is lit in Jerusalem, put into a plane, flown to Athens, used to light more and more lanterns, flown, driven and carried to every corner of the land and into each church and chapel. Then the flame is used to light candles carried by the congregation, each person passing the flame to next. This flame represents Christ and the resurrection and everyone is supposed to get it home intact to light a lamp in the shrine in their house which they try and keep alight until next Easter.

But before the candles snake home through the alleyways there is some serious celebrating to do: I had noticed shadowy figures on roofs earlier in the evening but assumed they were just getting a better view.


On a signal, these people in home made body armour and with sacks over their heads started setting fire to things. Rockets and fireworks lit up all the roofs immediately around the church. Gunfire ripped across the valley and up the hills as hunters fired their rifles into the air. Then the purpose of the shadowy figures became clear in a screaming whirlpool of burning phosporous - they had bundles tied on a rope, they lit them and whirled them over their heads as if they were going to lasso something, fire swinging around them, up and down and round and round - they were human Catherine Wheels, sparks flying everywhere including onto the crowds rammed below with the ropes making eerie noises as they rushed through the air. Sometimes the bundle would burn through the rope and go flying who knows where; the figures would just light another and continue. Everywhere above was light, noise and testosterone, everywhere around was a shifting sea of candles and devotion and the air was full to bursting with smoke and flying sparks.

And so it went on, until we drifted away on the tide of the crowd.

Religion can be fun!

Best of all, there is still time to book a flight - the Orthodox Easter is a very different date from the Western Easter - this year Easter Sunday is today in Western Europe but not until May 5th in Greece.

The tour I went on was run by the lovely Angela and Stelios at Strata Tours and I am delighted to have just discovered that even almost four years they are still using my photos on their Easter Tour page - a word to the wise though - if you are on the tour and find you are taking a seemingly random detour, don't worry, its just that Stelios in the other minibus wants to show off some olive groves that he or his family own :) I cannot recommend these people highly enough - they have self catering accommodation as well if you just want to do your own thing.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Light, colour, texture and geography

I've been looking back through the pictures I took in Crete three years ago to find the one I wanted for tomorrow. I haven't looked at them in a while and I wasn't as immersed in my local surroundings back then. Anyway, the point is the difference in light between the two places is, is, well - like night and day. Its not a question of better and worse, just different. Went I went to St Ives I understood why so many landscape painters ended up there and it is the same principle. The angle of the sun, the amount of cloud and shape of the ground doesn't just affect colour, it affects texture too. Its even wormed its way into the people. Below are three random photos of Crete and three of Surrey. Maybe it would be more scientific to show perhaps a flower from each place as these pictures aren't directly comparable, but who gives a damn about science, this is an art blog. Grass is grass but everything else, even the sunsets, are different colours. The pictures run Crete-Surrey-Crete-Surrey etc. They were taken with the same lenses on the same digital camera and processed by the same person with the same copy of the same of the same software on the same computer - all the differences are down to geography and climate.

So enjoy these, and if anyone who lives around the Mediterranean (or the Aegean or the Black Sea or in the mountains or deep in a forest) fancies an original work of art I will happily trade a painting for board and lodgings because I really want a holiday.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Good Friday: the Chora Church

It seems fitting to bring you perhaps the finest Christian building I ever saw today.

Hidden without the original walls of lurking, sprawling, stinking Istanbul, the greatest and richest city I ever saw, perhaps the only place I ever saw truly worthy of the name City, is a small Byzantine church. If you think of Byzantine churches of Istanbul, the temptation is to stop at Hagia Sophia, first a church before being converted to a mosque and a museum. This is understandable, Hagia Sophia is a truly breathtaking building which has been etched in my memory for twenty years but the little church I have in mind is just as remarkable, even if my recollection isn't as crisp.

The Chora Church, Kariye Museum or Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora is in part a thousand years old. A mere 700 years ago something astonishing was being done to this church. It was being decorated, and I have never seen or heard of the like anywhere in the Christian world. Frescoes and mosaics cover every surface; they are substantial both in invention and quality. Perhaps those in Ravenna match it, but I've never been.

I'm not certain I've picked out the correct Christ on the right here. It is nothing as a reproduction, but in the flesh something magical, miraculous even, happens. It is painted on the ceiling of an apse; that is to say a half-dome. The curve of the surface combines with the low light levels and the paint in a spectacular way to become the single most three dimensional painting I ever saw. This is not what Byzantine art is supposed to be about. It lives and breathes in a way the photo doesn't even come close to suggesting. If ever a painting was in danger of converting me to Christianity, it was this.

Here by contrast is something one might consider to be more typical of Byzantine art.

It has the characteristic mixture of recognisable, individual faces and totally flat textures. The patterns on the clothing take this contrast to a spectacular and funky extreme. Unfortunately this was not accessible when I went to Istanbul last as the church was having some work done.

On Easter Sunday I have a little something planned, even if it is just an excuse to show you an old photograph. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to go on a tour on which we were invited to spend Easter within Cretan villages and a very extended family. I will need every ounce of my ability with the English language to evoke what needs to be evoked, but if you have never seen a Greek Orthodox Easter - especially in a year when it coincides with St George's day - you have no idea what is about to hit you!

PS -- I haven't put this link in the main part of the post as the chap runs out of bandwidth from time to time, but if his site is working it has the most comprehensive set of pictures of the church that I have found - just be warned - if it is working you could easily use up your whole morning just gazing at some of the things there.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

New Work

I'd like to introduce you to two new paintings, Floodward and Mudward.

Each is 2' square and oil on canvas. The point of view in each painting is about 10 feet from the other but they are facing in almost exactly opposite directions - Mudward along the bottom of Cooper's Hill towards Maranello, Floodward out across the mead towards the tearooms. The names are not as daft as they sound - a couple of years ago whilst meandering through the Surrey Hills I passed through a village (somewhere between Gomshall and Friday Street) where someone had replaced the sign at the crossroads with one with altogether more human directions - This Way, That Way, Over There and Somewhere Else - and I have never quite seen directions the same way since. I like the idea that instead of being a prosaic "left" a direction can evoke the destination or the path - upward and skyward exist and I'm sure I've seen Godward used too.

I have also shown a less formal photo of Floodward. Some of you may remember that a while back I started thinking about white as a colour. Although the project I want to do has stalled for now as I have yet to find a composition which will do everything I want and I still can't find affordable Cremnitz, the thinking around this continues. Not only does this painting include three whites - Flake, Titanium and Zinc - but I have manipulated the texture of my marks purely and simply to affect how they catch the light. This means the horizon has turned out brighter than any paint has a right to be, but it doesn't show in a formal, conventionally lit photograph of a painting. The left hand photo hints at it nicely (it also show the top of the wood-burning easel from my last post!)

Sunday, 24 March 2013

A different sense of place

Something just occurred to me that is so obvious I'd completely missed it. Now that I'm stretching my own canvas again, with the unused canvas stored in the room where I paint and the stretched canvas only primed on the front, all  my paintings made during cold weather will end up smelling not just of oil paint but also of wood smoke. My only heating is a wood burner. I use it as an easel in the morning and light it in the afternoon. It dries my paint and warms my toes. My work, which on one level is about my relationship with a place, will now smell of one of the ways in which that place nourishes me. Call me an old hippy, but I find that very pleasing.

Paint review: WIlliamsburg Raw Umber

As I have explained before, returning to painting after a prolonged break has left me with a lot of investigating to do and this includes exploring different paints. One brand that caught my eye straight away was Williamsburg who are based in Brooklyn. Its a similar story to Michael Harding, one slightly obsessive person being seduced by the craft of traditional paint making and things growing organically from local roots. In some respects their philosophies seem similar too, being about mixing as much high quality pigment as possible in as little high quality oil as possible. There appear to be differences though; Harding's paints are remarkably consistent across every colour I've tried whereas Williamsburg make a virtue of each paint being different because it reflects the different qualities of each pigment. In practice, I was expecting this to mean paints of a similar quality to Harding, but with more character.

So, Raw Umber.

First impressions is that this is an incredibly stiff paint which is difficult to get out of the tube. Second impressions were "This is not Raw Umber!" Third impression, after reading the label and comparing with other brands is "This is actually Raw Umber, the other things I've used aren't." In fact, the fine print declares the pigment to be PBR7, Natural Iron Oxide with Manganese. I am used to PBr6, Synthetic Iron Oxide. The difference isn't noticeable when first squeezed onto the palette but very noticeable in use.

It is the coldest, dirtiest, muddiest umber I have used, and for my purposes this is a good thing. In use, it is more opaque than I was expecting and is not as stiff as the tube fooled me into believing - it holds marks well but brushes out fine when required - with the caveat that it works better with stiff brushes than soft ones. The difference in pigment is most noticeable when mixing colours. I like to use umber mixed with ultramarine to give a rich pseudo-black for some of the silty, composty riverbank mud because it is very dark but when brushed out very thinly it takes on the colours of indian ink. This is useful for me because under the black layer of silt here there is usually clay. With the Williamsburg paint, this no longer works. To get the same effect, I have found it necessary to switch to Prussian Blue. I can't quite work out whether that is due to the slight difference in hue or whether the Williamsburg actually affects a mix more intensely so needs a more powerful blue to have the same effect. I suspect from the stiffness it is just incredibly densely loaded with pigment.

So where does that leave us? I think there is room for both the Harding and the Williamsburg versions in my paintbox. At this level, better and worse don't apply, things are just different from each other and more or less suited to particular situations. The Harding is smoother, maybe even more forgiving and is easier to use on smooth surfaces and gradations of colour. The Williamsburg is gnarlier, earthier and more interesting. I will use the Harding lower down in the painting, for traditional underpainting, for areas where it will peek through and modify subsequent layers of paint and for areas of flat colour. I will save the Williamsburg for higher layers in the painting, for texture and for playing in the mud.

Looking through the colour charts, Williamsburg appear to have an unrivalled range of earth colours; I look forwards to trying these; but I confess I am wary and unsure about how the approach evident in this tube would play out in the brighter colours - could they be too extreme? I hope to find out some time in the next couple of months.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

I've finally done it! My website is now live.

I've tested it on as many machines as I can, but if you do find something obviously broken I'd be grateful if you could let me know either at the email address on the site or in the comments here.

As I said before, this blog will keep going as a separate thing - the website is for showing off, the blog for working things out and

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Landscape of the Vernal Equinox

Today is the spring equinox. The world is vertical relative to it's orbit around the sun and day and night are exactly 12 hours long. Given which tradition I see myself fitting into, given which artists I like, given my fascination with the rhythms of the seasons there is only one post I could possibly do today: Here is Paul Nash's Landscape of the Vernal Equinox.

There's a lot of intriguing stuff going on here. Half the painting is given over to the night and the moon, the other to the day and the sun. Most of the daylight is about the solid ground beneath our feet; the world made tangible. Most of the moonlight is about the sky, an inaccessible realm of dreams; the world made ethereal. Meanwhile the twin hills that are the Wittenham Clumps are divided, one preserved for us in daylight, one given to the night. As Tom Lubbock wrote, Paul Nash reveals that "we live in a changeling world." Never is that more apparent than in this painting, and never is it a more appropriate observation than at equinox or solstice.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Spring: a progress report

The tearoom. Sometimes all you can do is bask in the
ridiculousness of the world.
I've been out wandering again. I particularly wanted to see how the bluebells are coming on as over the last couple of years the weather has been all over the place and everything has been flowering at funny times. It looks like its going to be a vintage year for them; their part of the woods are properly carpeted in green at the moment. I'll have to head there weekly soon to get them at their best. Everything else is coming on nicely too, there are buds everywhere and the birds are out in their hundreds.

Pretty much all of the mead is accessible now after a fairly dry couple of weeks but it is still very treacherous - the clay parts of the hillside in particular have stopped being sticky and started being extremely slippery. I have the bruises to prove it!

I walked up to the JFK memorial (technically it's part of the USA) which I don't usually bother with but I'm glad I did - I saw a yaffle! I've seen him before, but not for a year or two. A yaffle in flight is one of those things that just make me happy.

Thursday, 14 March 2013


Its the little things you miss, and you don't always realise how much you miss them.

Since I restarted painting I've been buying ready stretched canvas, mostly because I am so severely restricted for space. I have been ever more frustrated with the quality of ready made canvas available. Locally it is shocking, and mail order is a problem because you can't see before you buy. So today I thought "enough!" and ripped the shoddy, tissue-thin canvas off some stretchers, went to the haberdasher's, bought some cotton duck and set to work.

When I trained I was taught to tension one of the long sides of the canvas first, then tack the centre of  the opposite side, then the centre of the two short sides before working out from those centres to the corners and it works just fine. It is fast and with two people you can easily get enough tension into unprimed canvas for pictures 6 feet across without any special tools if you make a careful choice when you size the canvas. Today I tried a different approach.

Whilst searching the internet for well-priced canvas I had stumbled across this method of stretching canvas - working from the corners in seems utterly ridiculous until you try it. I found I needed to tension at every tack twice before stapling so it took a long time but Oh My! the end result is so even. As I write this I am waiting for the second coat of sizing to dry properly before adding gesso, but it doesn't matter where I tap the canvas - corner, edge or middle - it rings with the same tone. The weave follows the edge of the stretchers with barely any distortion. I feel like its Christmas Eve and I want to open my presents! It is so obvious that these canvases will feel exquisite under my brushes. I don't care how late I have to stay up, the three coats of primer are going on tonight. Just looking at them, feeling the difference in softness, strength and texture; I cannot imagine ever letting anyone else stretch canvas for me again.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Sneak preview: Portrait of a February

I've been quiet lately as I have been developing a proper website for my work, and there's only so long I'm prepared to spend on a keyboard in any one week.  It's almost good to go now. The main purpose will be to showcase my own work, whereas this blog will remain as my "thinking out loud" space to help me stay focused as I explore the art world and my surroundings.

There will be decent reproductions of my paintings. Here are some small reproductions. The photos will need to be re-shot as there was a shadow over the paintings that I somehow didn't notice.



I wanted to explore the slog and the chaos and the struggle that is February, with mud that lunges out of the canvas at the viewer, paths shifting beneath his feet, the ground burning with new growth and everywhere still cold and wet.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Piranesi's Prisons

Etching is usually off my radar, but the Morandi show has reminded me about it. Today, I will show you a couple of prints from my favourite etcher, Piranesi. They are taken from a series of imaginary prison scenes and for me the tension between organisation and chaos therein still echoes across the ages. The tumbling light still shows in my own work and I think the almost organic quality of the buildings may provide the solution to the problem I raised in my "Edges" post. I will try it in the paintings I am currently sketching towards - two underground car parks between here and Staines.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Giorgio Morandi: Lines of Poetry

Despite having been to the exhibition of wonderful works on paper at the Estorick Collection, I do not want to write about Morandi.

Out of all the painters of the 20th Century, he is perhaps the one who is least about words, who's work most scorns all verbal attempts at analysis. I could break down compositions and tricks. I could describe his approach. I could celebrate his astounding focus. I could but will not.

Instead, I give in full a quote they have pasted onto the wall at the current exhibition:

"We are not a people suited to growing complacent in bourgeois existence. The richest and most content of our bourgeoisie always have, at the bottom of their nature, something more unquiet and restless than the poorest peasant of more northerly and happier lands that are less warm and less bright. That this fatal melancholy sharpens our vision of the world is an undeniable fact. Italian art, in its more skeletally beautiful aspects is a hard, clean and solid thing. From such denuded forms, cleansed of unrestrained enthusiasm and improper joy, is born that chaste, austere and lofty spirit which represents the highest merit of our great painting from the primitives to Raphael. Today, the confusion which oppresses the arts is enormous; and the poor quality of the painting that floods the continents with torrents of greasy, oily colour is difficult to define. There is an abundance of foolishness, much lack of understanding, a great deal of banality and cheap sensuality – and as for spirit, one would search for it in vain.

'Therefore, it is with sympathy and a great sense of comfort that we have followed the emergence, development and maturing of artists such as Giorgio Morandi through their slow but sure labours.
He seeks to discover and to create everything alone: patiently grinding his colours, preparing his canvases and looking at the objects that surround him, from loaves of ‘sacred bread’ – dark, and riven with cracks like the surface of an ancient rock – to the clean forms of glasses and bottles. He looks at a collection of objects set on a tabletop with the emotion that shook the heart of the traveller in ancient Greece when he gazed upon woods, valleys and mountains believed to be the realm of beautiful and surprising deities.

'He looks with the eye of one who believes, and the innermost skeleton of these things – dead for us, since immobile appears to him in its most consolatory aspect: in its eternal aspect. In such a way he engages with the great lyricism created by the most profound European art: the metaphysics of the most commonplace objects. Of those objects that habit has rendered so familiar to us that we often look at them with the eye of one who sees but does not understand. … In his ancient Bologna, Giorgio Morandi sings in this way – in an Italian way – the song of the great European craftsmen. He is poor, since the generosity of art lovers has thus far eluded him.  And in order to be able to continue with his work with purity in the evenings, in the bleak rooms of a state school he teaches youngsters the eternal laws of geometric design – the foundation of every great beauty and of every profound melancholy."
Giorgio De Chirico

Go to the show, digest it as slowly as it was made, then walk away satiated and in silence.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Style and Expectation

On my recent trip to London I went to the Giorgio Morandi show in Highbury. I haven't written anything about it because I don't have a lot to say. It's good, it's interesting and it's worth a visit but, a couple of curiosities apart,  it didn't make me want to write. I will give a quick summary next week as there are things there which are important to me and I would encourage you to go but the thing that really struck me was when I overheard part of a conversation.

A lady in a remarkable outfit of a fine wool sweater - either cashmere or merino but certainly the brightest cerise in the world, ever - dark leggings and patent leather Doc Marten's was looking at an etching on the wall and comparing it to one of a similar subject in a book in a cabinet. Both etchings were depicting still lifes in similar arrangements. One was made in 1927 and the other in 1956. I was so struck by what she said to her companion that I wrote it down verbatim.

"This one is quite early. That ones later, its much better, its much more stylized"

Her point was that the later work was more in the recognisable Morandi style, with his distinctive treatment of space, ovals and tonality. This was equated with quality. There was a simple thought that the piece that was more typical must be better, because it looked more like it should look. The mannerism was more important than the individual composition. Of all the artists you could subject to this indignity, Morandi is perhaps the least appropriate. His work is about thought and careful observation, not following a formula. For me, this is the source of his rigour and integrity. If his work has certain common threads running through it, it is because it honestly and simply reflects his personality, his interests and his view of the world. This is, however, an interesting insight into the view of someone else. It may be the view of someone more typical than myself. For her, a Morandi picture should look one way and one way only. Does the same applies to other artists too? Is the criteria for judging Picasso's work how closely it resembles Les Demoiselles d'Avignon? This sits in contrast to what I believe is the artist's duty to grow and stretch himself and experiment, but if a lot of other people are more aligned with this lady than with me, it may be a key to commercial success.

There's no conclusion to this post, its just a thought I'm uncomfortable with but need to consider.

Friday, 1 March 2013


I live on an edge, in more ways than one. Today I want to talk about an edge defined by London's circular motorway, the M25.

Once upon a time, I lived about 3/4 mile inside the M25 and I painted pictures of the suburbs. Now I live perhaps 300m outside the M25 and I paint the landscape. This photo is my border, where the Thames passes under the motorway between Runnymede and Staines.

To a degree, the difference is simply the type of environment where I spend my time and with which I therefore have a closer relationship. Before I faced towards London, working in Tolworth and Molesey. Now I see London as nothing but a necessary evil and turn my back on it, heading into the woods at every opportunity.

In Alanland, where Alan is King of the Alan people, ideas are never that simple. When I restarted painting last year, before I started painting the countryside I picked up exactly where I'd left off 13 years before by depicting the suburbs. This time it was modified by more than a decade as a shopkeeper but I just wasn't feeling the excitement of before so I turned to my more immediate landscape, Runnymede and the Surrey countryside. This grabbed me in part because I hadn't painted landscapes with serious intent before - it provided new challenges and stretched my vocabulary and I like to make things difficult for myself.

Recently I have looked at the suburban work I started last year with a little distance and it fascinates me, it is intriguing, ambivalent and surprisingly emotional. This raises some questions fundamental to my practice.

Given that as an artist I don't feel that sitting on a fence is an option, what should I think of being on two sides of a fence at the same time? Is to continue with both strands of work to sit on a fence, to dance on it or to repeatedly hurdle it? Should I rigorously close my options down or accept my restless nature and succumb to tangents and whim? How will my decision impact on my ability to focus?

 Perhaps there is a way to unify the two strands in a single body of work, but does this run the risk of being a mish-mash which does neither thing well? Since in many ways they explore the same concerns, using the duality of represented space, the joy of colour and the sensuality of paint as tools for coming to terms with my surroundings, maybe they are in fact exactly the same?

This is why I am reluctant to show my work here, despite teasing it. I am tempted to show both strands, but for the sake of a quiet life show them in different places using different names. Years ago, when both strands first started to manifest themselves in one exhibition, one critic found it hard to accept it was all done by one person. There is no simple answer but deep down I suspect I must show both, show them together and take the questions that go with that on the chin.